'Beloved' and the Problem of Mourning

By Heffernan, Teresa | Studies in the Novel, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

'Beloved' and the Problem of Mourning


Heffernan, Teresa, Studies in the Novel


How can it be preserved, even by thought? How can thought be made the keeper of the holocaust where all was lost?

Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

Making a space for the transgressive image, the outlaw rebel vision, is essential to any effort to create a context for transformation.

bell hooks, Black Looks

At the heart of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, Sethe, at a critical moment, is unable to tell her lover, Paul D, the story of her dead child. "Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn't get it right off--she could never explain."(1) Paul D, at this point, has already seen the newspaper article featuring Sethe's picture and a story about a run-away slave who kills one of her children when the owner catches up with her. Desperate, he confronts Sethe, wanting an explanation. But she realizes that it is not a question of filling in or countering this "official version" with her own version: "Sethe could recognize only seventy-five printed words (half of which appeared in the newspaper clipping), but she knew that the words she did not understand hadn't anymore power than she had to explain" (B, p. 161). For Sethe, language cannot contain the event.

Yet, despite her insistence about the failure of language to explain her story, much of the critical literature on Beloved emphasizes the importance of the novel in terms of the "writing" or "recovering" of it. Pamela Barnett, for instance, argues that the characters in the novel are forced by Beloved (the ghost of Sethe's child) to confront traumatic memories. This confrontation in turn begins the process of healing, which she describes as "conscious meaning making about what is inherently incomprehensible."(2) And Jean Wyatt, in a tempered Lacanian reading of Beloved, argues that "the hope at the end of the novel is that Sethe, having recognized herself as subject, will be able to narrate the mother-daughter story and invent a language that can encompass the desperation of the slave mother who killed her daughter."(3)

In this paper, I want to challenge these readings of Beloved and suggest some of the reasons why the novel frustrates storytelling, bearing, what Gayatri Spivak refers to as, "the mark of untranslatability."(4)

Lost Archives

The Europeans who travelled to what they imagined to be a New World and who envisioned America as "mankind's last great hope, the Western site of the millennium," a place of freedom and possibility, were, of course, also fleeing religious persecution, social ostracism, and economic hardship in Europe.(5) This transference of libidinal energies from the Old World to the New is what Freud understands as the "normal" process of mourning, where the loss of "one's country, liberty, an ideal, and so on" is overcome in the process of mourning.(6) The process involves an identification of the object that has been lost and a "reality-testing" that determines that the object no longer exists. This testing "proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that [lost] object" and that the object be incorporated into memory.(7) The process of representing loss, translating it into symbolic language,(8) then allows the "freed" libidinal impulses to be redirected at a new object.

As several critics have pointed out, the "New World" model is inappropriate in the context of African-American history. Maxine Lavon Montgomery describes the European experience as involving "a gradual decline in social, economic, and moral conditions, a major catastrophe, then a new beginning--an unreliable model when imposed upon the Black American experience."(9) And, as Susan Bowers writes, for the African-American (unlike Europeans travelling to America) "It]he good life lay not before them, but behind them; yet, every attempt was made to crush their memories of the past. …

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